The Eye’s Storm
Review of Two White Queens and the One-eyed Jack by Heidi von Palleske/Dundurn Press
Just before the Winter Solstice, the longest night in a year that was beginning to feel like a single long night, actress and writer Heidi von Palleske posted to Facebook yet another one of the sonnets with which she had marked the coronavirus pandemic lockdown’s slow, isolated, paralyzed days, this one addressing the solstice itself as though it were a lover:
I'm covered and yet, still you move through me,
You penetrate past my flesh and my clothes,
Your cruel touch will somehow renew me,
You're the thorns that scratch, you are not the rose.
At a moment in the lockdown when just about everyone was beginning to feel overwhelmed, and inundated, by the year’s steady and gathering flood of darkness, here’s a poem that reminds us that our relationship with the world is a complicated and sensuous dialectic of outflow and inflow, damage and repair. And beauty isn’t just the resplendent – and transcendent – rose. It’s also the friction, the rips, the penetration, the violation, the exchange: it’s the whole harrowing process. And as a form transmitted through the internet’s alienated, penumbral cloud, the sonnet is perfect. With its origins for us in Dante’s contemporary Petrarch, the sonnet forms the grammar of art and beauty, navigating as it does between canonical structure and the swarming, unbounded world’s unpredictable immediacy. Yet sonnet’s are by nature intimate. Like Psalms for the religious, they are sung, recited, whispered. Like Shakespeare’s great winter sonnet (“When forty winters shall besiege thy brow”), they struggle against the world’s ugliness and desolation. Or Like Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, they are “a shelter nailed up out of their darkest longing/with an entryway that shuddered in the wind.”
Heidi von Palleske’s pandemic sonnets are, as sonnets almost always are, an allegory of a poet’s – and artist’s – relationship to the world’s instability and uncertainty. Petrarch pursued an elusive incarnation of love and beauty; Shakespeare’s sonnets lamented time and decay, beauty receding into the vortex of language; and Milton’s only great sonnet was about his own failing eyes. But Heidi von Palleske isn’t only or even primarily a poet. A successful actress for going on four decades and with screen credits that include David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, von Palleske is also the author of the novel They Don’t Run Trains Anymore and the forthcoming Two White Queens and the One-Eyed Jack. Intricately plotted and sweeping like a great and terrible and strange oceanic current between Germany’s post-war existential crisis and Canada’s ambiguous wilderness of hope, Two White Queens is less an old-fashioned bildungsroman than a sinuous poem performed – voiced – in the twilight spaces of a lonely consciousness. And this is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in listening to von Palleske read, say, the rumination on the conception of the albino twins Clara and Blanca that provide the novel with one of its haunted, uncanny pagan cores. Their conception was a kind of annunciation in which their mother swallowed a broken white star streaking across the sky. They are wandering cosmic spirits – lost flares of life – reunited, made whole, in her body. And they are white, a white that has nothing to do with race but with a demonic negation at the centre of the visible, evoked by Milton in his great tract on purity and celebrated as tragedy in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Yet Heidi von Palleske’s reading isn’t soaring or pretentious. It’s private, lilting, and quizzical. It wants to leave all the questions hovering mid-air.
Heidi von Palleske grew up on a farm in Southern Ontario. Her eccentric father Wolfgang arrived in Canada in the early 1950s. He arrived on Canada’s far shores by way of savage Displaced Persons camps with a love of German poetry and a love of the untrammelled natural wild that two wars had obliterated in Europe – churned into collapsed trenches and unexploded shells. He shot squirrels from his porch and boiled them. He slaughtered animals in the yard while his daughter rolled in with friends. Unlike his siblings back in slowly recovering Germany, who were educated and became doctors and scientists, Wolfgang worked in an asbestos factory in east Scarborough. But at home, he could declaim Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. He could write poems in German and English. He even found the time to write an epic novel that mostly featured himself as a kind of pagan god of manliness transforming the world’s far-flung and needy women. Heidi von Palleske grew up in a world so saturated with the idea of literature it can feel almost comic and even parodic – her father often sounds like he actually aspired to be a modern-day version of one of the Brothers Grimm’s iconic and quintessentially Germanic figures wandering through primeval forests. It may seem strange that von Palleske became an actress, and a film actress at that.
In a family with five children, Heidi von Palleske was a lonely, isolated middle-child, and had little interest in performance. She read in the bathtub, steam rising, where she recited the classics: Antigone, Macbeth, Hamlet. For von Palleske, acting was never fully about her own beauty and glamour but about literature’s enunciation. Her film successes, like Dead Ringers, where she is tender and lyrical and beautiful, were, in a strange way, misleading. As her career evolved, and she cultivated the brand she wryly calls “Heidi von Palleske,” and as a woman gliding deeper and deeper into middle age in an industry entrapped by a rarefied vision of youth, the parts didn’t always get more and more uplifting. Making a living as an actress simply involves a lot of parts in movies, television shows and commercials that aren’t exactly for the ages. After a particularly humiliating day on a horror film's set, surrounded by young actors and actresses who knew nothing about her career, she considered abandoning the brand “Heidi von Palleske” and acting altogether to devote herself to writing. After all, she had begun her career reciting Antigone’s final speech in a bathtub –“Tomb, bridal chamber, eternal prison in the caverned rock” – and acting had always been an expression of her love of language. And for anyone who really loves language, language isn’t a remote abstraction, but is physical and sensuous, is the voice and the body. When the great Ancient Greek dramatists and lyrical poets composed their works, people didn’t read at home, but listened to them declaimed in public – in the sun and Aegean wind, with all the voice and body’s vulnerability and fragility. And though we now read from books, or words conjured and flickering on the screens of our various devices, literature has never lost its physicality. Literature has never stopped being a live performance.
Two White Queens doesn’t open with the two white queens, the albino twins who, as one would expect, from German fairy tales to Elizabethan tragedies, are both sublime and menacing. Rather, it opens with a simple event that reverberates throughout the novel and, in a strange way, illuminates the queens’ whiteness. Two rambunctious six-year-olds, Jack and Gareth, are playing in a Southern Ontario farm’s back yard, climbing a tree: two innocents racing up a tree it’s hard not to think of as the tree of life – and a branch breaks. And Gareth’s friend “twisted and spiralled, taking leaves and twigs along with him,” and irreparably tearing his eye open. Inevitably the tree is not the Tree of Life but a Hawthorn Tree, and, as Von Palleske suggests in her winter sonnet, thorns are not roses. Handled with evasive discretion, sliced and damaged eyes – one imagines the beautiful and harrowing cut open eye in Louis Bunuel’s surrealist masterpiece L’Age D’Or – are visceral, almost unbearable. The window into the soul, the idea that the eye is literally an organ, all nerves and lenses and blood, is almost impossible to face. Then Jack’s German mother takes him back to a Germany now divided and still in physical and moral ruins to a famous ocularist. His glass eyes were themselves works of art. They offered something better than sight.
When Jack visits the ocularist, appropriately named Siegfried (the name has its origins in Old Norse and is the name of the third part of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring Des Niebelungen), he is introduced to a nearly mystical cult of glass eyes, row upon row of them. “There are two types of seeing, my young friend,” he is told. “The outward-looking and the inward-looking. Now you must do both. You will appear to the world to be not as special as you are because no one else will know that you can see in two directions, while most of us can see in only one.” We tend to think of seeing as both recording the visible universe, the one the machinery of our eyes and brains evolved to decipher, but also the interior universe of the soul with its memories, its dreams, its prophesies. Siegfried points out that Jack may rightly grieve the destruction of his mortal eye but the new glass eye, the representation of the idea of beauty and perfection but which never moves, offers him something singular and powerful: inner vision. And it’s that inner vision, that inner world that is equal to the frangible external world to which humans have uncertain access, that draws Jack into a quest –magical, fatalistic – that leads him to the albino twins and to their punk opera duets. And of course, the traumatized Albino twins are going to perform a version of Antigone. “I am journeying to meet my own,” Antigone wails. “Those perished in their great numbers and received by Persephone amongst the dead. I am the latest of them, and my descent the worst by far, before my allotment of life has reached completion.”
Cinema has always sought to turn the camera inward and capture inner life. That’s why directors from Louis Bunuel to Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock shot dream sequences, or attempted to depict the visions of the mad and possessed. The great Russian experimentalist Dzigov Vertov was obsessed with images of the eye and the camera lens. This is also why film acting is less public than theatre. It’s a private world of gestures, expressions, glances, as though the camera sought to slide past the skin, past the flesh, into an inner world. Two Queens and the One-Eyed Jack occupies both worlds at once, slipping seamlessly from one world to another. Written with sharp clarity, elegance, and with an untranslatable Prussian sense of irony that Heidi von Palleske manages to capture in her lilting delivery on screen, the novel is an operatic, gnostic quest for healing that never really ends. The novel ends with Jack framing a shot with his one good eye, though one hardly knows what that means. The smouldering past is receding. The outward and inward future are as yet undefined. “A New Germany/ A New Europe/A New World.” And in the time we’re all living in – millions dead of a still spreading virus, people confined to their homes – for younger people right now one might boil that down to a hope for a new world we’ve yet to formulate or even imagine. For that, we’ll have to wait for Heidi von Palleske’s next, follow-up novel. But still, as von Palleske insists, the rose’s beauty and power is nothing without its long, thorn-encrusted stem. Beauty can be terrifying.
Daniel Baird is a Toronto-based writer on culture and ideas. He was one of the founding editors for The Brooklyn Rail in New York and a Senior Editor for The Walrus magazine. He has written regularly for The Walrus, Border Crossings magazine and many other publications.